Archive for July, 2012
David Claerbout’s exhibition the time that remains is currently on display at the Parasol Unit in London. It is a wide-ranging, multifaceted and visually complex exhibition that requires the viewer to spend (as the title of the exhibition suggests) time with the work. A video work called Bordeaux Piece, for instance, could be watched for almost 14 hours in order to decipher the complicated social drama unfolding. Filmed in a modernist building towering over the city of Bordeaux, the meticulously produced video tells the story of a father, a son and the son’s girlfriend. In this piece, like in most of Claerbout’s works, nothing is straightforward and it quickly becomes evident that the dominant and successful father is having an affair – or so it appears – with his son’s girlfriend. One could assume it is a loop, yet the story is played out numerous times in sequential 14 minute interludes, thus heightening the viewer’s perception of duration in searching for the slightest alteration each time.
The father is depicted as a man who usually gets what he wants: both in terms of material possessions (as signified by the superbly designed exterior and interior of his house) but also in terms of what he can emotionally possess of others. The son meanwhile is physically and metaphorically locked out of the house and his father’s undignified advances on his girlfriend. The father’s competitive and manipulating persona comes to the fore in a poignant scene in which he stands on top of the gates to the house, like a king in his castle, teasing his son about whether or not he wants to be let in.
In spite of representing fractured and corrupt relationships, the video is shot with subtlety and rhythm. The physical presentation of the video too, projected on the back of a semi-transparent white screen, adds to an extremely aesthetic experience. The lush greenery of the west coast of France juxtaposed with the harsh linear structures of the modernist building are thus not only projected on the white screen, but also, they are projected through the screen into the room of the gallery. The viewer, too, inadvertently becomes a temporal screen in Claerbout’s carefully considered set up.
Just as much the visuals of Bordeaux Piece literally spill into the room of the gallery, the sound also appears to travel beyond the realm of the work of art. The birds tweeting in Bordeaux thus cunningly mesh with an adjacent two-channel video piece, titled Breathing Bird, which depicts a still image of a bird on each screen apparently reflected in a window. As if to reiterate the contrast between father and son in the previous piece, one bird is shot from the inside, another from the outside, as they are reflected in the glass. On closer inspection however, it becomes clear that the birds are not as much looking at reflections of themselves, but rather, that they are looking at a type of alter ego on the other side of the glass. The work is laden with Freudian and Lacanian references that go to the core of discovering and developing human subjectivity.
Another modernist building is the main set for a video piece titled Sunrise. Here, the viewer follows a cleaner who enters the residential building in near-total darkness to begin her shift. To avoid disturbing the owner of the house who is still sleeping, the cleaner conducts her job in darkness and as silently as possible. The owner of the house, one can assume, is a pedantic person who likes to wake up in a clean and tidy environment. Comparing Claerbout’s video with a photograph, Sunrise is perhaps the nocturnal video version of Jeff Wall’s Morning Cleaning photographed at Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion.
Similar to Wall’s influential photograph, the modernist architecture lends itself to the rectangular frame of the image. If Wall’s cleaner is an anonymous and even faceless ‘worker’, the cleaner in Claerbout’s piece is depicted with personality, quirks, even with desires: she indulges in a cigarette in a brief break, she appears to do her job with pride, and after her shift on her way home she briefly smiles when the first rays of sun shine on her face. As the height of the camera and the volume of the music towards the end of the 18-minute video rise in equilibrium, it becomes abundantly clear that Claerbout understands film-making as a craft, a craft that can be perfected.
In a backlit photograph, exhibited in a completely dark space and titled Orchestra, the viewer is deeply implicated in the work as the conductor of the orchestra and, on a closer look, the entire audience is eerily looking back at the camera. Ironically, the orchestra is actually beyond the frame of the image, instead, the spectator of the artwork becomes the spectacle. The image is characteristic for Claerbout’s measured approach: he consistently seeks to ‘project’ his work beyond the confines of the image, the artwork or the film, and ultimately also the gallery. Those indulging in Claerbout’s artworks should be prepared to see the world with different eyes hereafter.
This article was originally published at photomonitor.co.uk.
The exhibition Contemporary Japanese Photobooks is currently on display at the newly re-designed Photographers’ Gallery in London. Curated by the photographer Jason Evans and the co-author of the landmark study Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ‘70s Ivan Vartanian, the exhibition presents a diverse range of photobooks published over the last decade. For those interested in the subject matter, this exhibition offers a unique opportunity to view some rare material, some of which would be even difficult to find in the most specialized bookshops in the backstreets of Tokyo.
Perhaps unusual for an exhibition displaying rare and valuable books, the viewer is actively encouraged to physically engage with the books. The books are openly displayed along the side of the walls, while seats and tables in the middle of the single room space invite the viewer to study the material at their own pace. Giving a small indication of how precious some of the books are, visitors are requested to wear white gloves presented at the entrance at the gallery. The exhibition thus underlines the fact that photobooks are not only a bound collection of photographs to be looked at, but rather, the photobook itself is a physical and tactile object that must be appreciated in its own right.
The importance of appreciating the photobook as a physical object is underlined in the exhibition by displaying a very diverse selection of books that were produced with very different and often-experimental methods: the paper edges of one book were covered by a reflective silver varnish while the pages of another book were kept together by industrial sized bolts. There is a sense in this exhibition that in some cases the photobook – as Gesamtkunstwerk – is edging towards the very boundary of the book as a commonly recognizable object.
By focusing on photobooks from Japan however, the exhibition of course also comments on a cultural specificity. While in the West the exhibition might be the preferred method of presenting photographs, in Japan, the photobook is the most common platform for disseminating photography. As pointed out in Vartanian’s illuminating study, the historical origins of the photobook as an emerging cultural industry can be traced back to the 1960s, and perhaps more specifically, to the emergence of a radical new type of photography ideologically aligned with the New Left Movement. Photobooks often allowed photographers to bypass the more traditional publishing outlets under heavy control of government policy. These radical origins of the photobook in Japan are equally visible in the exhibition: pushing the physical limits of the photobook is historically located in the belief that the medium of photography can push against ideological and political restrictions.
There is also an economic reason why the photobook flourishes, more than the photography exhibition, in Japan since emerging photographers are often locked out from the gallery system. This gallery system can be roughly broken down into five parts: public galleries, private galleries, department store galleries, camera manufacturers’ galleries and rental galleries where photographers can exhibit their work in exchange for a fee. For the vast majority of emerging photographers, the latter is the most viable option as the former are usually restricted to more established names. Faced with the increasing cost of exhibiting their work in often-tiny rental galleries, photographers instead invest in their work by publishing it as a book and thus reaching a wider audience.
The elevated value of a publication over an exhibition can also be seen in the way photography awards are structured in Japan. A nomination for the UK’s most prestigious photography award, the Deutsche Börse Prize (also on display at The Photographers’ Gallery at the moment), hinges on an exhibition. In Japan, a nomination for the most prestigious photography award, the Kimura Ihee Prize, follows the publication of a book. In short, as a consequence of specific political, economical and institutional developments, the photobook has flourished into a booming cultural industry in Japan. This exhibition is a timely, however, also selective case in point.
If you are interested in the emergence of ‘provocative’ photography in Japan in the late 1960s, please download my essay below:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
Jia Zhangke’s film ‘Still Life’ tells the story of a man in search of his daughter in the valley of the Three Gorges in China. The man has not seen his daughter for sixteen years whereas the old address of his estranged wife is the only clue to his family’s whereabouts. Crucially, the film was made in 2006, the same year that the Three Gorges Dam was completed and the water levels of the Yangtze began to rise. The man quickly discovers that his estranged wife’s house is already completely submerged by water. Throughout the film, the monumentality of the task of locating his family is signified by long and sweeping shots, aesthetically reminiscent of Romanticist paintings, with the man in the foreground and his gaze transfixed by the ever-changing landscape in the background.
The impending force of the Yangtze is emphasised in a number of shots that indicate where the water levels of the river are expected to be in the future. Streets, buildings, homes, an entire city in short, is expected to give way to the Yangtze at 156.5 meters above sea level. As the Chinese character on one building indicates, anything in the way of this mega-project is labelled ‘demolish’ (拆, chāi). It is important to note that such demolitions, often forced on tenants with little or no compensation, are one of the major sources of social instability in China. Where will the people that inhabit these buildings go? What will they do? Metaphorically speaking, what will the future of China look like. The blown out highlights and lack of visual details in a number of poignant scenes in the movie indicate that the man’s future, China’s future, is diffused, ambigious, literally not clear.
An important reoccurring theme in the film are physical injuries carried by people the man periodically comes in contact with. As the naked bodies of the workers who are relentlessly demolishing the vanishing city indicate, the viewer assumes that these injuries are incurred by the horrendous working conditions on the ground. The vulnerability of their bodies is visually emphasised by juxtaposing their bodies with a group of men wearing protective gear and gas masks as they spray poison to, ironically, eradicate the outbreak of diseases. Another scene depicts the family of a one-armed man angrily fighting for injury compensation with the manager of a demolition company. Apart from representing physical injuries, Zhangke depicts people who have become victims of social injustice and greed, constantly fighting with each other over material possessions, money and space.
In this socially tense environment, corruption and organised crime apparently blossom. One worker tells his comrades that he was attacked by a gang who forcefully took over the contract of a demolition job. Rather than originating from the falling debris of a building, it becomes evident that the injuries represented in the film originate from a rising level of crime and violence. The water levels set at 156.5 meters thus also indicate a virtual border below which, quite literally, the underworld rules.
Another related reoccurring theme is money. In one scene the man curiously compares a view of the valley with a depiction of the Three Gorges on a 10 Yuan bill. This romanticised relationship with money as a physical object is quickly subverted by various people who try to rip the man off. This allusion to trickery, or tricking people out of their money, is made at the very beginning of the film when a faux magician declares that he has successfully converted Euros into Renminbi with the shake of a hand. Another scene shows a man watching Chow Yun-Fat burning a US Dollar bill on TV. These scenes can be read as a commentary on the increasing dominance of China vis-a-vis the more ‘established’ economies of Europe and America. I would argue however that by referring to money as a vanishing trick, it is the very value of money and the people’s belief in the value of money that is being questioned here.
In ‘Still Life’, everything has a price: a ride on a motorcycle, a night in a hostel, a day’s worth of labour. Even the beating of a man, as the protagonist finds out, is duly renumerated with money. Towards the end of the film when the man has finally found his estranged wife, he also discovers that she too has a price. Forced into quasi-prostitution by poverty and debt, the man learns from his wife’s patron that he will have to pay 30.000 Yuan for her to be released. The wife’s destitute condition, imprisoned by economic exploitation, is tragically signified by a shot in which she clings on to a set of bars like a prisoner begging for her freedom.
In spite of its apparent embrace of realism and documentary aesthetics, a number of scenes in ‘Still Life’ clearly allude to the imaginary with computer-generated imagery: a woman sees an extra terrestrial object flying in the sky, a bizarre looking building takes off from the ground like a rocket. Even the collapse of a large building in the distance, as an obviously computer generated scene, sits in complete contrast with the representation of ‘reality’ in the rest of the film. Here, Zhangke applies a theatrical technique called the ‘distancing effect’ (Verfremdungseffekt) coined by the playwright Bertolt Brecht who argued that it prevents the audience from losing itself passively in the play. In other words, the representation of otherworldly and physically impossible occurrences in the film allows the viewer to question its narrative, even question the very format of the cinematic apparatus. The consequence of this effect, as Brecht argued, “leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer.”
The academic Ping Zhu has speculated in a recent paper that the original Chinese title of the film ‘The Good People of the Three Gorges’ [Sanxia Haoren] is, in fact, a hidden homage to Bertolt Brecht’s classic book ‘The Good Person of Szechwan’ [Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan] from 1943. There is plenty of evidence for this to be the case I would ad. In Brecht’s original play three gods visit the Chinese province Szechwan to look for a ‘good’ person in a society riddled by egoism. In the play this ‘good’ person remains illusive and the gods quickly discover that helping other people has become secondary to making a financial gain in this world. In ‘Still Life’, as signified in another otherworldly and bizarre ‘distancing effect’ scene, three men dressed as gods are not as much looking for a ‘good’ person as they are bored, sitting at a table, playing on their cell phones. In short, they have given up looking for a good person.
Taking this comparative analysis between Brecht’s ‘Good Person’ and Zhangke’s ‘Still Life’ one step further, is important to note a number of important aspects the play and the film have in common. Both function is a powerful critique of capital (lower case ‘c’) in which the body has become and exchangeable and expendable commodity in monetary terms. Both also functions as a critique of Capitalism (upper case ‘C’) in which the citizen is represented enslaved in a system of exploitation. In such a system is is difficult, if not impossible, to be a ‘good’ person. Similarly, like in Brecht’s play, the locality of the Three Gorges functions as a parable not only for the rest of China, but also, any type of economic system based on exploitation of labour.
The extent of this form of exploitation of labour is vividly illustrated in the final minutes of the film. The protagonist tells a group of workers that in the coal mines the daily pay rate is 200 Yuan. As the demolition job in the Three Gorges comes to an end, the workers are eager to join the protagonist on his next job. In spite of warning them that working in the mines is very dangerous and that many workers die every year, the group joins the protagonist the following day. In the end, the man never found his daughter. His family is substituted by a community of migrant workers who, in search of the a better life, cross from one side of China to another. This journey, as the last shot of the film indicates, is akin to a high wire act.
This blog post is an abbreviated and early version of a forthcoming journal article. As I am developing the paper, any comments or critical feedback would be highly appreciated. You can either leave a comment on this post here, or email me at marcus.bohr (at) network.rca.ac.uk for any feedback.